Politics Blog

Endorsement interviews and the other coal flier

I had a lot of topics in mind when I wrote the "big money" story about spending in the Whatcom County Council races, published in our print product on Thursday, Oct. 24. Some of them didn't make the cut but got some play in earlier blogs, so I should address them here.

It's important to close the case on a discrepancy left unresolved on this blog: Did Washington Conservation Voters conduct endorsement interviews with the four council candidates it supports -- Rud Browne, Barry Buchanan, Ken Mann and Carl Weimer?

At one point WCV Executive Director Brendon Cechovic said he did, which is how he was "pretty darn confident" of the accuracy of fliers stating that the four candidates opposed a coal terminal proposed for Cherry Point. (This would be a problem because all candidates have said they are -- and in fact they should be -- neutral on the issue at this point.)

Then a couple candidates said they had no recollection of such an interview. A couple local names were thrown into the mix -- Alex Ramel and Isabel Vanderslice -- had they conducted the interviews?

I was able to re-interview Cechovic and talk to Ramel. No interviews were conducted after all, Ramel said. The four met WCV's qualifications for endorsement by being either (1) incumbents who maintained a good environmental record (Mann, Weimer) or (2) challengers who were encouraged by WCV to run (Browne, Buchanan).

Ramel, who is a board member of the Whatcom chapter of Washington Conservation Voters, explained the endorsement situation well, as well as the four candidates' stand (or lack thereof?) on a coal terminal. Ramel, it should be said, is active with Whatcom Wins, the Democratic group campaigning for the four candidates, so he has no contact with Cechovic on WCV's independent campaign (that would be a violation of the rules governing independent expenditures, which have no spending limit). He had no role in the controversial "anti-coal terminal" ads distributed by WCV. But endorsement decisions are made by the local chapter, not the state office, so Ramel speaks with authority here:

"What I can tell you is that none of these candidates have made any commitments or promises on that decision. ... They're doing their best to remain open minded. The confidence I have in recommending these candidates for endorsement ... is based on the work they've done in the past and the confidence that that's going to translate into the right decision on the coal terminal when the facts are in."

Ramel went on:

"It's equally important in my mind that their opponents have repeatedly made very bad decisions on environmental issues. The values just aren't there. ... I can't speak for what's transpired for the coal money, but you can see that both sides have done the math the same way."


(Ben Elenbaas, running against Mann, has defended his environmental record by speaking of the coursework he's done at Western Washington University's Huxley College of the Environment, and his work stewarding the land as a farmer. Bill Knutzen, the incumbent being challenged by Browne, has an often overlooked role working on environmental issues in the county. He's the county's representative with Puget Sound Partnership, and his presence there helped secure money for the Canyon Creek levee project, Knutzen said. The flood control project will protect homes up there and improve salmon habitat. He's working with Lummi Nation to get a handle on the problem with sediment accumulating around the mouth of the Nooksack River. "It's a fine line. We've got to do it in an environmentally sensitive and ecological, salmon-sensitive kind of way," Knutzen said in our election interview. "It can be beneficial to our salmon stocks if we do it responsibly.")

* * *

A lot of fuss has been made by me and others -- rightfully so -- about the WCV fliers. The Democrats and the candidates themselves didn't much care for them. But there's another coal flier out there that has gotten only a little attention. The Whatcom Democrats are distributing a flier to Western students that does refer to coal.

"You have the power," the flier states. Then it quotes the National Journal article from May that gave these races some early national publicity: 

"A little-watched race in Washington state will determine how America uses its coal and the future of the global climate."

The Democrats are removing themselves from the coal assertion by one step, by couching it inside a quote from a national news story. But the implication seems straightforwardly clear to me: "You have the power" to decide "the future of the global climate" by voting for Browne, Buchanan, Mann and Weimer. It's not a terrific leap from there to presume the flier is saying that environmentally conscientious college students can bring in candidates who will oppose the coal terminal. After all, how much attention are Western students paying to minutiae such as the candidates' need to remain unprejudiced before their "quasi-judicial" decision on a permit for the terminal?

Lisa McShane of Whatcom Wins does not describe the flier in this way. She said the flier strikes a chord with students by referring to a national issue. College students are more tapped into national issues than local ones, she said.

"We just want to encourage students to vote, drawing a connection that there's a lot of national interest in these elections, and we want to make students aware of that," McShane said. "Obviously the candidates have not taken a position on the coal terminal."

* * *

A commenter brought to my attention that Kathy Kershner got a $900 donation -- the max allowed -- from the Lummi Indian Business Council. Kershner did not return a call seeking comment, but I will bet that this donation has nothing to do with coal. To say that the $900 is a quid pro quo for a "no" vote on the coal terminal is not looking at the whole picture.

Remember, the Lummis just need to say the word and the coal terminal all but disappears from the drawing board. The Lummis are playing two hands at the same time -- indicative, I think, of divisions within the tribe. Members played a prominent role in trekking an anti-terminal totem pole from Wyoming to Cherry Point last month.

But as John Stark reported last month as well, the Lummis are in "government-to-government consultation" with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the terminal proposal.

Stark noted in his totem pole story (linked above) that the Lummi Indian Business Council did not sponsor the totem pole event.

* * *

Finally, the pro-coal side jumped all over the fact that Washington Conservation Voters was funded by a "California billionaire" (nice combination of two words unsavory to a lot of Washingtonians) who was accused of playing fast and loose with our state's campaign laws. The PDC dropped a complaint against former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer shortly after it was submitted.